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Nets and Knives: The Interplay Between Expansive and Atomic Notes

I recently received the following question from a reader:

I was reading your post on Zettelkasten and it's really interesting. I was hoping you'd be willing to elaborate a little on how you separate book notes from Zettelkasten. I take notes on the books that I read and summarise them that way, but that would be counterproductive to the Zettelkasten. I've noticed that your book summaries are awesome and I'd love to know how you do it.

It’s a good question and one that I have pondered as well. Are book notes counterproductive to the Zettelkasten method? After all, Zettelkasten notes are atomic in nature, one idea per entry (for those unfamiliar with the method, you can learn more here). The way I write book notes is the opposite, my book notes are expansive (you can find dozens of examples here).

How do I square these seemingly contradictory approaches? I find the metaphor of nets and knives to be useful.

When collecting material for my book notes, I cast a wide net. Anything remotely interesting makes it into these notes.

When collecting material for my Zettelkasten, I’m more selective and require a tool with more precision, a knife.

With that framework in mind, it’s easier to view both my book notes and Zettelkasten as distinct but complementary tools.

Book notes are a way for me to summarize and condense the interesting things I find while reading. My book notes are a distillation of the source material, but they’re simultaneously messy, often redundant, and a bit raw. These notes serve as a personal reference guide back to the book. As such, I like to maintain some degree of fidelity to the source material. This is why I prefer using an outline format and a mix of direct quotes, paraphrasing, and summarization in these notes. My book notes facilitate the ongoing conversation with a book recommended in Mortimer J. Adler and Charles Van Doren’s How to Read a Book (a topic I have written about previously).

My Zettelkasten is more selective than my book notes. I might find one or two really interesting ideas in a book that I want to explore further (or am already exploring). The book notes make it easy to identify these “pearls” that can be saved as atomic ideas in the Zettelkasten. For instance, I am a big fan of irony as a literary device (see my piece on the topic in Newsletter Issue #21). When I find interesting examples or explanations of irony, those invariably get incorporated into my Zettelkasten and are then connected and cross-referenced with preexisting notes on the topic. The Zettelkasten takes the most interesting stuff I encounter and places them in a setting for further exploration and thinking.

Ultimately, there’s no contradiction. Expansive book notes and atomic Zettelkasten are just tools—nets and knives. Understand the tool, its purpose, and how it aligns with your goals. This enables you to not only employ each one effectively, but also in concert.

Supplemental reading:

  • My Favorite Book Note and Summary Sites: There’s more than one way to take book notes and I don’t claim any kind of superiority for my approach. Find the tool that works best for you and use it. This article lists some other book note sites you can check out for inspiration in developing your own practice.
  • Zettelkasten Forum: I’m not especially orthodox where ZK is concerned, so I always point others to this community of smart and knowledgeable practitioners.

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